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Forgotten Gialli: Volume One

In the intro to Alexandra Heller-Nicholas' latest academic text, The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema (McFarland Press), the genre scholar defines the Italo-born mystery subgenre as such:

"For cult movie fans, film critics and cinema academics alike, the giallo film is predominantly considered an auteurist domain, where films by the subgenre's big names - Mario and Lamberto Bava, Sergio Martino, Umberto Lenzi, Luciano Ercoli, and [Dario] Argento himself - have tended to garner the most attention. Translating literally to 'yellow', giallo refers to the yellow covers of pulp crime novels released by publisher Mondadori during the late 1920s, placing the origins of giallo in the work of authors like Edgar Wallace and Agatha Christie. When moved to the screen, they take the form of what have since their '60s and '70s heyday become privileged objects of fascination and affection for cult audiences due in large part to their broadly defining consolidation of sex, horror, and a near unrelenting dedication to a particularly excessive film style."

But what about the movies that fell through the cracks? The ones crafted by working genre carpenters in Italy and Spain just looking for another job to pay the rent, before the subgenre's trademark excesses were stolen by auteurs across the pond (such as Brian De Palma) and then abandoned by audiences entirely for the next pulp fad?


That's where Vinegar Syndrome's Forgotten Gialli collections come in: curated Blu-ray box sets that cover movies not made by the prima maestros. Instead, they're selections off the beaten path, journeying to those cottages in the countryside that aren't in any guidebook, and would be the perfect settings for a razor blade slashing (or three). These are the lesser known black-gloved killers, prowling the corridors for beautiful, buxom babes to carve up, before disappearing back into the ether, only to have their identities later uncovered by a curious boyfriend or unfaithful lover.


Now, Secret Handshake is bringing you three films from one of the sets each season, as part of our commitment to exploring the varied layers that exist in the cult cinema ecosphere. That way, if you're looking for something a little languid and a lot lurid, we've got you covered.


For our first installment in this new series, we take a look at the first VS box, which contains two nasty gems from Spain, plus a psychedelic Italian rarity...


***

The Killer Is One of 13 [1973] (Country of Origin: Spain; d. Javier Aguirre, w. Alberto S. Insúa)


Despite arriving after Dario Argento reinvented gialli via his Animal Trilogy (Bird With The Crystal Plumage [1970], The Cat O' Nine Tails [1971], Four Flies On Grey Velvet [1971]), The Killer Is One of 13 plays like an old school murder mystery, ready to be printed on yellow pulp. The hook is even straight out of the Agatha Christie playbook (or, you know, A Bay of Blood [1971]). A rich widow (Patty Shepard) gathers thirteen guests of various social standing (including Eurohorror regular and Pieces [1982] professor, Jack Taylor) to a stand-offish dinner at her secluded mansion, where even the help can't get out for a day because, frankly, there's apparently nothing to do in the Spanish countryside. She quickly informs the diners that one of them was involved in the unfortunate demise of her husband two years prior. Secrets are unveiled. Tensions rise. And, oh yes, the knives...they come out.


Fifty-five minutes in. That's how long it takes until we get to the first murder in One of 13. That's right, there's hardly any butchery in this gialli, nor are there really any elaborate set pieces. Instead, director Javier Aguirre (Count Dracula's Great Love [1973]) stages most of the scenes like an elaborate chamber drama, allowing each of the accused to poke the other, just to see what spills out. The piercings here are verbal instead of visceral. To be honest, that's what makes The Killer Is One of 13 a ton of fun. For seasoned genre weirdos, Aguirre's locked room ensemble would probably pair well with Herbert Ross' The Last of Sheila (1973); a similarly cheeky, often goofy whodunit where psychic sparring often takes the place of shiny blades, with the central mystery acts as little more than a delivery system for uncomfortable humor and hi-jinks. One thing Sheila doesn't have? A fist fight with trash horror legend Paul Naschy that concludes in a fiery car crash over the side of the cliff. Now that's bloody spectacle.

The Police Are Blundering In the Dark [1975] (Country of Origin: Italy; d. & w. Helia Colombo)


Where The Killer Is One of 13 plays with gialli conventions, locking us in for a weekend with a baker's dozen of unlikable suspects and their secrets, Helia Colombo's The Police Are Blundering In the Dark (1975) delivers the type of low rent trashy thrills most murder enthusiasts signed up for when sitting down with another of these lo-fi, gore splattered melodramas. Someone's killing pretty models in the countryside. The latest victim's philandering journalist boyfriend (Joseph Arkim) goes off in search of his missing plaything, only to end up in the home of a reclusive couple who may be hiding many sadistic perversions. Copious amounts of nudity and brutal, black-gloved massacres abound.


While the formula is rather apparent in Colombo's one off directorial foray, that doesn't stop its somewhat torturous second act from giving way to a psychedelic freak out finale of epic proportions, involving a futuristic statue that's used to photograph the thoughts of individual players in this color saturated razor blade operetta. Like the American slasher - which would heavily steal from its Euro predecessors on numerous occasions - The Police Are Blundering In the Dark is using a subgenre's template to keep time, before playing dizzying acid jazz around that narrative metronome's notes. While it's undoubtedly the most flawed film of this bunch, Colombo delivers something curiously eccentric that sticks with you by the time "Fin" appears after its final frames.

Trauma [1978] (Country of Origin: Spain; d. León Klimovsky, w. Juan José Porto)


It's no mystery that gialli cinema is plagued by rampant misogyny, often punishing its numerous female victims for sexual promiscuity without ever considering their inevitable deaths as anything more than cheap thrills for the audience to consume. Yet León Klimovsky's Trauma seeks to upend that unfortunate trope by telling the bulk of its (sadly, rather predictable) story from the perspective of its tormented innkeeper, Veronica (Ágata Lys). Acting like the female flipside to Norman Bates, this rural hospitality maven strikes up a friendship with a nebbish writer (Klimovsky regular, Heinrich Starhemberg, a/k/a Henry Gregor) who's just looking for a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of city life (not to mention his harpy of a wife). Unfortunately for the harried scribe, Veronica is dealing with some deep seated issues, courtesy of a former partner she may still be harboring in the attic.


Now, this isn't to say that regular Naschy conspirator Klimovsky doesn't enjoy all the usual leering at his frequently naked female ensemble. Trauma is still very much aware of the sandbox its playing in, and what sort of degenerates bought tickets to these horror shows. Nor does he even attempt to hide the fact that Veronica is the killer, as anyone remotely aware of Hitchcock's classic will recognize that Juan Porto's script has merely substituted an abusive rapist husband for Bates' shrill, domineering mother. It's a total "have your cake and eat it too" picture, indulging the excesses Alex describes in her Giallo Canvas while simultaneously commenting on what sorts of scars these female characters might be hiding away from their male counterparts. But that's also what makes Trauma somewhat special: it's a meta-text that still manages to deliver all the perversions it's (mildly) condemning, literally grinning at you by the end for going along with the sick in-joke.


Jacob Knight is the Editor-In-Chief and co-founder of Secret Handshake.

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